In 2002, when a friend asked Minnesotan architect Geoffrey Warner of Alchemy Architects to design a weekend home at Lake Pepin, Wisconsin, for herself and her son, the project’s modest $60,000 budget inspired him to try prefabrication—a decision that would kickstart an entirely new line of work for his St. Paul–based firm.
The elegantly modern, simple charms of the 336-square-foot, off-grid prefab quickly garnered international attention, which led Warner to launch weeHouse—a line of contemporary, modular housing with a focus on modesty, minimalism, and a reduced environmental footprint.
Over the past 15 years, Alchemy’s weeHouse homes have popped up across North America with about 50 completed to date. The modular system has also been refined to respond to fit a variety of sites, foundations, programs, and sustainability initiatives. Alchemy has also worked on hybrid homes that combine traditional building elements with modular weeHouse principles.
"Historically, our projects have been concentrated in New York State, the surrounding New England area, and the upper Midwest," says Warner, noting that the high cost of housing in the Northeast means that the relative costs for building modular are less there than in the Midwest. "We’re seeing an uptick in projects coming from the West Coast and the Southwest over the past few years, however. The economy is typically the driver regarding demand, but certainly liberal attitudes, media exposure, and word-of-mouth from our colleagues and clients helps, too."
As architects only, Alchemy is dependent on factory availability for meeting regional demand. Using a hands-on approach and BIM models, the architects work with local factories and general contractors on permitting as well as on-site design.
Alchemy also says that their streamlined prefab approach means weeHouses are "typically 10-to-15% less expensive than conventional construction." The total project price includes site costs, build costs, permits and engineering, general contractor fees, and design fees.
"For larger houses, cost savings tend to come from the efforts to plan the house, and can be offset by the decreased timeline that it takes to produce that house in a controlled setting with available resources right at hand," shares the firm. "For smaller houses, our stubbornness at keeping with a design labor–intensive process—to realize progress over time—is leading to efficiencies with approaches like the lightHouse. These efficiencies will streamline the whole process for everyone’s benefit."
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The firm continues: "Because of changes in the economy, the efficiencies in prefab will likely become more apparent, notably with concentrated labor efforts, and time in execution—and time does equal money—because of no weather or site delays. Occasionally we see material cost efficiencies, but an efficiency of scale is not available when building one house versus building an apartment complex."
Buoyed by increasing interest and changing regulations, Alchemy has developed spinoffs of the weeHouse for added flexibility, such as the panelized barnHouse constructed with CNC methods and the weeZero, their line of net-zero energy, prefab modulars built for remote delivery.
For clients interested in "Living Light," the architects recently introduced lightHouse, an ADU of approximately 500 square feet or fewer that can be easily adapted to a variety of sites and needs—and can be delivered via prefab modular, panelized, or with on-site construction methods. The first lightHouse was installed last fall in Sebastopol, California.
The adaptability of weeHouse is also evident in their current roster of projects nearing completion, which include a custom three-story, maritime-inspired home on Wisconsin’s Washington Island; a pair of fire-resistant Santa Rosa weeHouses, with one built in Southern California and the other from Oregon; a Passive barnHouse in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; and an upcoming weeZero in Hudson, New York.
"For over 15 years, the weeHouse has stayed remarkably consistent, favoring modesty, minimalism and material celebration over applied decor or architectural fashion," notes Warner.
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